“Who are you saying Kaddish for today?” one of the kollel young men asked. I pulled out a baseball card from my pocket, showed it to him and told him about the former Jewish big leaguer whose yahrzeit fell on that day.
Here’s how it came about.
I start my day with a four-minute walk to the kollel. The daily Daf Yomi shiur is at 6:45 and davening is at 7:30. Evenings, Shabbosim and Yom Tovim, I usually walk another few minutes past the kollel and cross the street from Oak Park to Southfield to my shul, the Agudas Yisroel Mogen Avrohom.
On one of these walks it occurred to me that no one, in all probability, says Kaddish for former big league Jewish players. Certainly not in an Orthodox shul. So I decided to say a Kaddish for some 80-plus deceased Jewish players, owners and baseball writers.
I’ll tell you about one or two each month, even though some months have ten or more yahrzeits. Hopefully we’ll be together for extra innings, so just about every yahrzeit will be remembered over the course of time.
I recently said Kaddish for Barney Dreyfuss on his 75th yahrzeit. Dreyfuss may have been the best owner of all time. He was innovative, smart and generous – a shrewd businessman who was considered a great judge of baseball skills and often scouted players.
Born in Germany in l865, he came to America at the age of l6 and worked his way up in his uncle’s Kentucky brewery from bookkeeper to part owner. A small, slight man who was told by doctors to exercise for better health, Dreyfuss developed a passion for baseball and bought into the Louisville Colonels, one of the original National League clubs. He bought a half ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates in l900 and his partners, recognizing his business skills and ability to judge baseball talent, elected him president.
Dreyfuss signed Honus Wagner, who became arguably the greatest shortstop ever. On the business side, it was Dreyfuss who made the shidduch between National League and American League owners that led to the creation of the World Series, the championship showdown between the best teams of each league.
Dreyfuss also got the players a bigger slice of the money pie by allowing them to share in the revenue of the first four games of the World Series. In l909, Dreyfuss built the first concrete and steel multi-decked baseball stadium. It became the model for other franchises.
In l93l Dreyfuss urged his son, Sammy, a Princeton graduate and Pirates vice-president and treasurer, to take over the presidency of the club. Tragically, a serious bout of the flu developed into pneumonia and the younger Dreyfuss died at the age of 34. Grief-stricken at the loss of his only son, Barney asked his son-in-law, Bill Benswanger, a baseball fan engaged in another business at the time, to take over. Bill agreed and Barney slid into retirement and ill health, passing away less than a year later at the age of 67.
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Before we talk about today’s players in the coming months, it’s time to say goodbye to some of yesterday’s, both Jewish and non-Jewish. I saw all of them play and collected their cards. I viewed them up close in their later years when they came to Old-Timers games or were coaches.
Larry Sherry, a pitcher who compiled a 53-44 won-lost record with a 3.76 earned run average from l958 through l968, died recently at 7l. With the Dodgers he teamed with his brother Norm, a catcher, for the first time on May 7, l960. Larry pitched the last four innings in relief and Norm homered as the brothers combined to down the Phillies, 3 to 2.
Norm managed the California Angels in l976 and l977. Five years earlier, another Jewish manager, the late Harold “Lefty” Phillips, managed the Angels. Phillips and Sherry are the answers to the trivia question in my last column.
Vern Ruhle had a long career as a pitching coach after his pitching days (l974-l986) and died within days of his 56th birthday…Steve Barber, who won 20 games for Baltimore in l963 died at 67. Barber had a l4-year career and also pitched for the Cubs and Yankees… Pat Dobson, who won 20 games for the l97l Orioles and l9 for the ’74 Yankees, died at 64. He was a pitching coach for major league clubs before becoming a special assistant to the general manager of the San Francisco Giants.
Joe Niekro died from an aneurysm at the age of 6l. I got to see him often during his pitching days for the Cubs, Padres, Tigers, Braves, Astros, Yankees and Twins (l967-’88). Ironically, the only home run he hit in 22 years was off his Hall of Fame brother, Phil, on May 29, l976, in Atlanta. The brothers combined won 28 more games than the 5ll that Cy Young won by himself. (Phil won 3l8 while Joe accounted for 22l.)
Lew Burdette, who won three complete games for the old Milwaukee Braves against the Yankees in the l957 World Series, died at the age of 80. Burdette had back-to-back 20-game winning seasons in l958 and l959 and had a lifetime record (l950-’67) of 203-l44 with a 3.66ERA… Max Lanier was 9l and the father of infielder Hal Lanier. Max pitched in three consecutive World Series for the Cardinals (l942-3-4) and spent l2 years with St. Louis before going to the New York Giants. He was buried wearing his Cardinals cap.
Hank Bauer was a good player, fair manager and an excellent marine. He saw action in several battles in the Pacific and was wounded at Okinawa before embarking on a pro baseball career. After a couple of seasons in the minors, Bauer made the Yankees and played in nine World Series in ten years. He still holds the record for hitting safely in l7 consecutive World Series games. Bauer, who died at 84, managed a couple of teams in the l960’s and enjoyed his greatest success in l966, when he piloted the Orioles to a sweep over Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers. Bauer was a pleasant man whose high-pitched voice didn’t seem to fit with his square-jawed face.
Art Fowler, a pitching coach with many Billy Martin-managed teams, passed away at 84. Fowler was a teammate of Sandy Koufax on the l959 championship Dodgers team, and picked up two more World Series rings coaching for the l977 and l978 Yankees. Fowler was Martin’s favorite drinking buddy – the pair helped support many bars around the old ballparks.
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The one player I’m focusing on more than any other during spring training is Red Sox pitcher John Lester. A left-handed rookie who had a 7-2 record last season before being diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lympoma, Lester underwent six chemotherapy treatments and was given a clean bill of health. Lester makes a strong Boston starting pitching staff stronger – even stronger than the Yankees. The Yanks, though, have a stronger bullpen and starting lineup.
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As you may have read in The Jewish Press and elsewhere, former Jewish big leaguers Ron Blomberg, Ken Holtzman and Art Shamsky will be managing three of the six Israel Baseball League teams. Other managers include experienced college baseball coaches for the inaugural season, which opens June 24. The 45-game regular season ends on August l7.
The six teams will use three fields. The Tel Aviv and Netanya teams will play at Sportek in Tel Aviv. Ra’anana and Petach Tikvah will share a field at the Yarkon Sports Complex, while Kibbutz Gezer will host the Modi’in and Bet Shemsh teams. Stay tuned to this column for news on the Israel Baseball League.
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The tenth yahrzeit of a Jewish major leaguer who did more for baseball in Israel than any other former player will be observed about the time you’re reading this. I’ll tell you about him next month and also give you my predictions for the 2007 baseball season.